Xbox Series X : The Review

With the Xbox Series X it feels like Microsoft is looking back to the glory days of the Xbox 360 era in hope of a bright new future. I’ve owned my Xbox Series X for a few weeks after battling against the scalpers to secure one! Now I’ve had some hands-on time with the console, I think I have a good idea of the strengths and weaknesses of the new hardware. This review is very light on specifications. There are plenty of reviews that deep dive into that. Instead, I want to talk about the Series X as a platform and my real experience of using it. The review is split into four sections. Design, performance, features and the future of the platform. As Xbox would say…let’s ‘Jump In’.

Design

The Xbox Series X has a handsome and intelligent design. The design is both aesthetic and functional. It abandons the typical VCR style form factor in favour of an obelisk. The shape is more reminiscent of a PC tower than the games consoles that have come before it. As per Microsoft’s marketing, the console can be positioned vertically which in my opinion is preferable as it means the glowing Xbox power button is the right way up. If space is at a premium on your TV stand, you can certainly place it horizontally. That does mean the button (and logo) will be side on and it does look a bit off-putting in my opinion.

The top case of the Xbox Series X. ©Pixel and Polygons

The design features very little in the way of clutter or ornamentation. The only slight design flourish is the green grill at the top of the console. This is a nod to the Xbox aesthetic of the past. The grill forms an integral part of the thermal architecture of the system. Air is sucked in by silent fans up through the system and dispelled via the grill. It seems to be very effective in practice and the console is whisper quiet even under heavy load. As somebody well versed in Apple design, I can’t help but draw parallels to the ‘trash can’ Mac Pro which also featured a top-mounted suction thermal system. Fortunately, the Xbox Series X was never planned to be user-upgradable!

Vertical placement of the Xbox Logo ©Pixel and Polygons

If you look at their recent track record, Microsoft has doubled down on accessibility when it comes to gaming. Look no further than their excellent Xbox Adaptive Controller. I think it is even reasonable to say they’ve done more than Sony in this important area. That also extends to console design. For example, if you reach around the back of the console, the ports on the Xbox Series X are labelled with braille dots. And speaking of ports Microsoft has chosen a reasonable selection that includes 3 x USB A, ethernet, Toslink audio, HDMI 2.1 and a storage expansion slot. One notable omission is USC C which does seem odd considering that this has now become the industry standard.

Beyond the Xbox power button, the console features a disc eject button owing to Microsoft retaining support for disc-based media including games, Blu-Ray and DVD. You’ll also find the ‘bind’ button for pairing peripherals such as the Xbox controller, supported headsets and more. Microsoft has not only retained support for discs but also continues to support legacy accessories from the Xbox One including older controllers. One major exception to this is Kinect. Though few will lament its loss.

Unlike Sony, Microsoft has made very few tweaks to the controller for the Xbox Series X. One of the few areas that Microsoft has consistently outperformed Sony in is their controller design and its ergonomics. That may no longer be the case thanks to Sony’s highly praised DualSense controller for the PS5. However, that doesn’t mean the Xbox Series X controller is bad by any means. Microsoft has taken inspiration from its very own Elite Series 2 controller and enhanced the standard Xbox Series X controller in a few really clever ways. First of all the size of the controller has been tweaked to make it more comfortable in the hand. It’s a little smaller and according to Microsoft will feel more comfortable in a wider range of hand sizes as a result. They also textured grips to the rear surface of the controller and the triggers. Finally, the addition of a share button has been added to the face of the controller. Sony fans will note that share button was present back in the PS4 era so, in this respect, Microsoft is playing catch-up.

The tweaked controller of the Xbox Series X. ©Pixel and Polygons

All in all, I’m a fan of the design. It looks understated and it feels well built. The simplicity of the design lends it a sophistication that the Xbox One lacked. Further to this Microsoft has mercifully abandoned glossy, scratch-prone black plastic. This has given way to a matte textured polycarbonate shell more akin to the Xbox One X. A welcome change in my book and a win for durability.

Performance

The Xbox Series X is a beast in terms of performance, offering twice the performance of the Xbox One X with 12 teraflops graphics horsepower. The original Xbox One was a mere 1.3 teraflops! Needless to say, the increase in performance is dramatic. The problem is that it isn’t easy to gauge how that will translate into real-world graphics performance right now. In my testing, I’ve tried a range of titles including backwards compatible Xbox 360 titles such as FallOut 3, Xbox One backwards compatible titles such as Assassins Creed Odyssey and Xbox Series X optimised titles including Gears of War 5.

FallOut 3 is a title that was enhanced for the more powerful version of the Xbox One, the boosted Xbox One X. The most obvious improvement was in image sharpness when run on an Xbox One X. Now while running on an Xbox Series X, frame rates seem to be more reliable and there are some enhancements to image clarity. The overall image looks sharper and lines seem cleaner. The benefits are limited by texture resolution however which would require Bethesda, the developer of the game to do special work to update them. Keep in mind this is a 360 title and so even the base Xbox One was able to help it to run at the developer’s target resolution pretty consistently. Make no mistake, however, running FallOut on Xbox Series X is the best way to play the title on a console right now and it does look remarkably good for its age!

Assassins Creed Odyssey by Ubisoft is an impressive RPG designed for the last generation of consoles including the Xbox One. Like FallOut 3, it too was enhanced for the Xbox One X. When run in backwards comparability on the Xbox Series X, the improvements seem much more pronounced! The frame rate has improved and the stability is much more reliable. The title seems to maintain its target resolution much more consistently and the benefits are very apparent. Textures seem sharper, facial animations look more natural and clean and draw distances are much more consistent too. Pop in and artefacts seem to have been all but eliminated. Again this is not a Series X optimised title but the console does a good job of enhancing the experience without extra work from Ubisoft.

Gears 5 unlike the former, is a game optimised for Xbox Series X. Developed by the Microsoft owned studio The Coalition, the title originally shipped on Xbox One with One X enhancements but special work has been done to improve it for Xbox Series X. The title takes partial advantage of a new feature called the Xbox Velocity Architecture (more on this later), can sometimes reach a native 4K up from the target 1080p and delivers higher-quality lighting, improved shadows, ambient occlusion and more. The differences are noticeable and the game looks gorgeous but I have to be honest. For me personally, the differences weren’t transformative. Gears 5 already looked great on the One X and we need to keep in mind that the title pushes the upper limits of last generation hardware.

I’m looking forward to testing a purpose-built game, designed specifically and exclusively for the Series X, not constrained by the need to support the Xbox One family of consoles. Only then will a true picture emerge of the real potential of the Series X. I’ll provide an updated review when that becomes a possibility. Right now the closest we can get to a game designed with next generation consoles in mind would be Assasins Creed Valhalla. It shipped as a next gen title with support for last gen systems so it doesn’t quite make for the compare I would like. I suppose there is the exclusive Xbox Series X title ‘The Medium’ but in my opnion it feels like more an indie title rather than a Triple A showcase.

All in all, I feel confident that the Xbox Series X will prove to be an incredible machine as far as performance goes. My experience with backwards compatible titles and optimised titles was very promising.

New Features

There are several new features in this new console. Some more important than others. There are a few that really stand out and I think these are the features that will make the biggest difference to your day to day gaming experience.

The first new feature is the Xbox Velocity Architecture (XVA). XVA is a suite of hardware and software features enabled by an interplay of both the Xbox OS and the console hardware. It is comprised of a custom SSD, hardware-accelerated decompression blocks, a brand new DirectStorage API layer and Sampler Feedback Streaming (SFS). Don’t worry if this doesn’t make too much sense! What XVA does is it allows for rapid load times and enables developers to access more of the raw performance of the GPU and CPU. Developers will even be able to use this new tech to take advantage of new, more complex rendering techniques. XVA also brings with it an amazing feature called Quick Resume. Quick resume is a part of XVA that keeps apps and games held in memory and paused in the state that you left them in. That means when you switch back to a paused game later, you won’t need to wait for it to load through its start-up screen and load your last save. The game is waiting for you exactly as you left it.

In my testing of XVA, I found that load times in backwards compatible titles were almost eliminated in some cases. Fast travel in Assasins Creed Odyssey, for instance, was reduced to under ten seconds of load time compared to over a minute on the Xbox One X. Quick Resume worked flawlessly in Xbox One titles and I was able to juggle between over 10 titles without issue. I was blown away! Unfortunately, Quick Resume didn’t always work for Xbox 360 titles. Xbox 360 titles are emulating the Power PC architecture of the Xbox 360 hardware and that seems to be causing the problem. Xbox One titles, by contrast, run natively on the Series X and don’t rely on emulation. This is because they were written for the x86 architecture of the Xbox One just like the architecture of the Series X.

The Xbox Series X supports hardware acceleration. This enables two important features that make a significant difference in realism and visual clarity. The first is Auto HDR. Auto HDR enables support for HDR in titles that don’t officially support HDR. Usually, developers need to do special work to add HDR support to their game but the Series X picks up the slack and adds it automatically. The implementation of HDR using brute force techniques is crude but effective and certainly adds value to older titles that don’t offer true HDR support. The second feature is ray tracing. Ray tracing results in real-time reflections so water, glass and just about any reflective surface in a game give off accurate 1:1 reflections. It also helps light to bounce off of surfaces, react to objects and indeed interact with objects with more realism. In my testing, I found that both of these features added dimension and authenticity where supported. The best example of ray tracing I found was Watch Dogs Legion and I definitely recommend checking out some gameplay on YouTube if you haven’t seen it running on the Series X. It’s transformative! One thing to keep in mind is that not all titles can take advantage of auto-HDR sadly and developers do need to do extra work to add ray tracing support.

Future

In time we’ll see more games that support all of the hardware potential of the Xbox Series X. At the moment games that are optimsied, are still running with plenty of head room. Developers are just scratching the surface of what this beast can do. With plenty of GPU horsepower and the opportunities provided by the XVA, it’ll take some time before we see the true power of this new console. It’s exciting to think about what games might look like in 7 years or so at the end of this consoles life cycle.

The success of this console depends on quality software. The Xbox platform has no problems attracting third party developers. First party exclusives have been somewhat few and far between in recent years however. PlayStation fans have had no end of stunning first party titles to enjoy but Microsoft have struggled in this area. The good news is that this looks set to change. Micrsoft has aquired a number of large studios in the last couple of years and many exclusive titles are in development. The biggest aquistion is of course Bethesda the creators of FallOut, The Elderscrolls and more. In the interim we’ll have Halo Infinite to look forward to later this year.

We can’t talk about the future of the platform and software without mentioning Xbox Game Pass. The subscription service offers access to a large library of titles from third-party studios. It also offers access to first-party titles at no extra cost. First-party titles also release on Game Pass on day 1! Game Pass has become a competitive advantage for Microsoft. Sony’s PlayStation Now service can’t compete with Game Pass. It doesn’t offer anywhere near the same size and quality of game library and relies on streaming in most cases.

Recently Microsoft has hinted at some major new features for the Xbox Series X. Larry Hryb from Xbox stated on the official Xbox podcast that “there’s a lot coming” for the Xbox Series X but “we can’t really say too much.” We don’t have any hints or rumours yet as to what these new features might be but Microsoft clearly aren’t resting on their laurels.

Wrap Up

With the Xbox Series X it really feels like Xbox is back. Microsoft has listened to user feedback and learned the lessons of the mistakes made at the start of the Xbox One generation. They’ve doubled down on the things that gamers actually care about. Performance, efficiency, load times and of course content. If Microsoft continues to invest in new features, in services like Game Pass and start to ship compelling AAA first-party titles, they have a real chance of regaining some lost ground from the last console generation. They face stiff competition from the PlayStation 5 but for the first time in years, the console war really is on.

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